Pashmina, by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina

What It’s About: Priyanka, daughter of an Indian single mother, uncovers the story of her past with the help of a magical pashmina.

Why I Think You’d Like It: It’s a beautiful, expressively illustrated graphic novel that is simultaneously simple and profound. With a fairly straightforward story, ideas about love, home, choice, family and the price of dreams were interwoven beautifully and naturally. I was carried from cover to cover in less than a day.

I liked Priyanka a lot. She was a relatable teen girl; good at heart but full of questions and insecurities that she sometimes handles poorly. Her most interesting relationships were between her and various elders, and there wasn’t a simplistic mentor/mentee relationship with any of them. They all had struggles understanding her, she had questions that none of them had perfect answers to, and they still had wisdom to offer her. I was one of those dreamy kids who got on better with adults, and her relationships felt honest on a level that not a lot of authors have captured.

Also, as a fantasy geek, I loved how seamlessly the magic integrated with the real world. It almost felt like magical realism, which I have a serious weakness for; if you liked stories like Beasts of the Southern Wild you will probably love this. I will definitely be looking out for more books by Nidhi Chanani!

Content Warnings: Traumatic events are referenced but nothing is graphic or detailed. I think you’ll be fine.

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Harlem Nocturne, by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Harlem Nocturne

What It’s About

This book is equal parts biography and cultural history, focusing on three artists; modern dancer Pearl Primus, novelist Ann Petry, and musician/singer/composer Mary Lou Williams. As it describes their fusion of artistry and activism, it also takes the history of Harlem past it’s 1920s heyday and shows how the cultural and artistic boom evolved into the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are many gaps in our history when it comes to African Americans. You would be forgiven, after reading your average American textbook, for thinking the entire Black community was just cryogenically frozen between the 20s and the 60s. And that’s if you had one of the good ones that mentioned the Harlem Renaissance at all. This book is a fantastic way to begin filling in the gaps. Griffin’s focus may be the 40s, but she also gives context from the 30s and indicates how the changes wrought in WWII set the African American community up to weather the 50s and triumph in the 60s.

Griffin has a fantastic writing style. I never got bogged down in too much detail, nor did I get ever get lost. She’s as engaging as any storyteller; I didn’t just find these women’s lives interesting, but I also cared about them. They came alive on her pages, and I found myself hungry for still more information on them when I was done.

As I read this book, I kept returning to the ideas of the ups and downs of life, and legacy as the ripples we create. There’s also a beautiful mixture of realism and hope here. As the war ended and McCarthyism took hold, many of these women had their work eclipsed, and are still sadly obscure today. Yet the work they did was still important to what would come later. They spoke out, they lived life their way, and they shaped their communities in powerfully positive ways.

The whole book was engaging, thought provoking, and I finished it in about three days because I couldn’t put it down. I can’t recommend it enough, and I will definitely be reading and recommending more of her work. We all need books like this in our lives.

Content Warnings

Some references to lynchings and other anti-black violence, as context for their work. Otherwise you’re fine.

Flying Lessons, by Ellen Oh

Flying Lessons

What It’s About

An anthology coming of age stories, with both authors and protagonists from a diverse range of identities.

Why I Recommend It

Individually, these stories are all great. Though a few touch on sad content, like losing a parent or social isolation, for the most part they are fun and happy. That in and of itself is cool. It’s incredible to see a queer first crush that isn’t angsty, or a disabled kid connecting with his father over wheelchair sports, without anybody pitying or handwringing. And even when I have no personal connection to the identities represented, the stories touch on something fundamental human experience, in a moving and delightful. One of my favorites was the one where the Choctaw uncle tells his nieces and nephews with a tall tale. Folklore plus weird but kindly old people bonding with small children; that is now you make a Lane happy.

Collectively, this is a great introduction to marginalized authors who have long, award winning careers telling diverse stories. None of these stories are overtly political, but the combination tells a message that shouldn’t be political, but sadly is; anyone can tell a human story, and anyone can be the star of one. There is no one way to be the everyman, and isn’t that awesome?

Content Warnings

You’re fine.

Adventures in Odyssey Paused on Account of Nanowrimo

Hi everyone!

I had this awesome plan where I was going to use October to pre-write all three of my AIO episodes, so they’d be out of the way for Nanowrimo. Unfortunately, I was slammed by two absurdly rough weekends in a row, and I spent a good part of my week just trying to survive at work and then recover when I got home. So the posts are, unfortunately, not done.

The good news is that those episodes are already a bit Christmas themed, so maybe it’s lucky that they’re now being saved for December? Maybe? I dunno. I’m very sorry and I’ll try to get some quick bonus posts out during the month, but otherwise it will just be my Monday book reviews.

If you’re doing Nano as well, best of luck to you! For everyone else, have a wonderful month and may your upcoming holidays rock.

A Banquet For Hungry Ghosts, by Ying Chang Compestine

A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

  • Genre
    • Horror, Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • In Chinese folklore, one of the classic ghost story forms is of a hungry ghost; a person who, having died hungry, must be fed by the living, or it will feed on them. This is a collection of short, spooky stories based on that tradition, each centered around a dish in an eight-course feast. 
  • Characters
    • Some stories have tragic protagonists, who were victimized in life and return for revenge. Some are despicable, brought to a messy end by their own flaws. Some are clever enough to narrowly avoid a rough fate. Some are sweet and well-meaning, but horribly unlucky. All of them make for excellent stories.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The fun of a campfire urban legend, but without all the cliche. I can enjoy a well-told creepy story even if I know where it’s going, but with a few exceptions, in this book I generally didn’t. She used all the classic tropes but kept taking me by surprise.
    • One reason the stories were so unique is that she drew on her memories of the Chinese Revolution and the various ensuing abuses of power. It adds an extra shiver when you remember that, hidden among the ghoulishness and drama, there is some element that real people suffered under. And I think that’s part of good horror, even the campy sort. There should be a real human feeling underneath, not just gore for gore’s sake. I thought this book got that balance perfectly right.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • After each story, in which she makes you agonizingly hungry for a dish and then creeps you out so fast you get whiplash, she gives you the recipe for the featured food. And you realize that as horrified as you were, you still want to try that goddamn murder dish. It’s pretty sadistic… and I need to buy this for myself to get those recipes.
    • Before returning this to the library, I did get to make tea eggs, long-life noodles and eight treasure rice. They were all great, and the recipes were easy to follow (although I did have to look up how to steam sweet rice for the eight treasure rice recipe).
    • She also includes notes on recent Chinese history, which was fascinating and got me curious to learn more. I know a lot more about ancient Chinese history than the more recent struggles, and I think that’s a massive problem in our education, especially considering what a huge player China is internationally.
    • Beautiful, ghostly, atmospheric illustrations.
  • Content Warnings
    • Multiple gory deaths, and if animal cruelty is too much for you, you might want to skip the tofu chapter.
  • Quotes
    • “When she looked up, the small figure of a girl stood in front of the henhouse, dressed in silk the color of moonlight. Her eyes pierced the storm with flames of hatred. As she bent down to pick up an empty bowl, her long wet hair, dark as ink, draped across her face.”

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Beloved

  • Genre
    • Historical Fiction, Horror, Magical Realism
  • Plot Summary
    • Two escaped slaves find each other after years of freedom, and try to make a life together. But lingering wounds and secrets threaten to destroy their little family and their last remnants of sanity… not to mention the complications brought on by the baby ghost in their house.
    • I had this one pretty well spoiled for me before I started, and while I loved it anyway, I wish I had the chance to read this once without knowing what was coming. This seems to be one of those books that people can’t figure out how to explain without giving away the last twists, so hurry up and read it before they get to you.
  • Characters
    • One of my favorite things about Toni Morrison is how beautifully she sketches her characters. She will make you feel that you’ve completely slipped into their skins, and that you can’t avoid loving them any more than you can avoid loving yourself. Then she shows you their darkest deeds, darkest thoughts, and most horrible memories, but you can’t look away, because by now you love them too much. You just hang on and hope she’ll bring them to some kind of peace in the end.
    • What makes this cast especially endearing, and painful, is that unlike in The Bluest Eye, most of the characters care about each other. They truly, deeply want to save each other, heal their wounds, and stop each other from ever getting hurt again. But at the same time they’re afraid, or confused, or timid, or misguided in how to express that love. I love horror, and I love chosen family stories. This book played the one against the other, and it nearly drove me mad. In a good way, of course, or I wouldn’t be talking about it here.
    • The ghost is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever read. She’s such a blend of creepy and pitiable, and oddly naive and sweet in her own destructive way. I’m not sure whether to classify her as the villain of this story or just another victim. Either way she’s brilliant.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Miserable and beautiful, and yet maddeningly full of hope. Seeing them relive their horrors, you almost wish you could detach yourself enough to go numb and leave it all alone. But you keep seeing the beginnings of a miracle, and even as it struggles to hold together, even as it falls apart and keeps being roughly stitched back into place with threads that don’t possibly look strong enough to hold it, you want it all to work out. You can’t stop wanting it to all be okay. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Actually had a happier ending than I thought was possible. There, I think that’s vague enough. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Oh good lord, what isn’t here? Death of adults, death of children, adults in peril, children in peril, physical abuse, psychological abuse, and two sexual assaults. These characters get absolutely raked across the coals and you are not permitted to glance away. If you can tolerate it, you’ll be rewarded with something unforgettably profound and sweet. 
  • Quotes
    • “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
    • “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”
    • “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind–wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”
    • “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
    • “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Viva la Difference

It’s probably not surprising, given that this is a product of Focus on the Family, that politics and social issues is not one of the topics I think they handled particularly well. I not only have come to disagree on them when it comes to most issues, but disagree in a way that creates an impasse. It’s one thing to disagree with someone, but be willing to be convinced, and have them return the sentiment. It’s another thing to have your core assumptions and values so diametrically opposed that neither of you could persuade the other without also fundamentally rocking your worldview. On most issues, AIO and I disagree in the latter sense, and in this way I think we unfortunately mirror our society as a whole.

Yet, I do like to start my topical sections out on a positive note, and there’s one particular episode that debunks a serious misconception about conservative Christianity. I’m going to temporarily put aside my politically outraged liberal hat, so I can talk about one political lesson that was incredibly positive. I don’t just bring this up because I want cookies for being fair minded, but also because I think that if you’re going to fight a toxic mentality, you need to fully understand it. I think that sometimes we waste our time fighting something that isn’t actually a problem, and that gets in the way of the bigger, more uncomfortable problems.

So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to the Mulligans. Mike and Tracy are the parents, Lisa is their daughter, and they also take care of their cousin Nick. Nick has a good heart, but is so preoccupied with being cool that he usually ends up being the biggest dork around. Lisa is blind, spunky and an ardent animal lover. To her delight, the family lives on a farm where they’ve rehomed various exotic animals from a closed zoo. They took in the animals because they have made an agreement to “always say yes to God.” In other words, when somebody comes to them needing help, they will find a way to do it.

Have I mentioned I really, really like the Mulligans?

On the Mulligan zoo-farm, they all have their own assigned critters. Nick and Lisa have very different techniques for wrangling them, and they are getting on each other’s nerves. For example, as they are unloading some new animals, Lisa’s sweet talk approach with her ostriches gets them into their pen at approximately the rate of sloth. Meanwhile, Nick’s baby elephant, Gus, isn’t eating. Nick’s main ideas have been, A. try to somehow pry Gus’s mouth open and shovel some food in or B. explain to him the error of his ways. These have not been particularly effective. Lisa thinks Gus is probably scared and would cooperate better after some TLC; Nick thinks that if she would stop serenading the birds and just shoo them they might possibly stop being in his way all the time.

Whit comes in the middle of this chaos with a request. There’s a single mother he knows who is going into the hospital for a long stay, and her daughters need a place to stay. Mike and Tracy say they want to pray about it, but it’s pretty clear where this is going. Even they joke about the farm turning into a city.

The next day, Lisa and Nick get into a fight over lunch. She makes a lot of the meals and has gone full blown vegetarian lately. Nick is not adapting well to the rabbit lifestyle. Tracy tries to settle this argument by convincing him to take a turn cooking. At first he insists he’s too macho for that, but she points out that some of the best chefs in the world are men.

For AIO, this is some mind blowing gender subversion.

Anyway, he’s convinced, and while he goes off, Lisa rants about his macho attitude towards everything. Tracy uses diversity in the animal kingdom to talk about how different gender expressions can both be good. Lisa has never had a brother, nor has Nick had a sister. When Nick does things a different way, and Lisa automatically assumes. But when it comes to animals, she doesn’t like one animal more for travelling in herds instead of living solo, or having feathers instead of fur. They’re all different, and she loves them all for what they are. Tracy encourages her to see her own femininity and Nick’s masculinity like fur and feathers; not better or worse, just different.

Once the speech is over, they go to check in on what Nick’s doing for lunch, or as Lisa says, what he’s doing to it. He presents them with, hot dog and sausage sandwiches, sprinkled with bacon, wrapped in bologna, topped with spam. That is mostly a direct quote, but I’ve left out Lisa’s agonized gagging.

I guess lunch meat withdrawal is a thing.

Lisa gets physically sick and Tracy goes to help her out, while Mike does his best to enjoy the… meal?

A bit later, as Nick is taking another shot at feeding Gus, Mike goes in to broach the topic of the girls Whit wanted them to look after. He starts by checking in with how Nick’s adjusting to having a sister. Nick talks about girls being weird, and Mike gives his own talk about how boring the world would be if men and women were exactly alike. He also takes it a little further, bringing up how all the other differences between us can make us  better; how being around people who aren’t exactly like us can enrich us as people, and challenge us to grow in ways that we never would if everybody was exactly the same. It’s a great speech, but unfortunately it’s interrupted by escaping ostriches.

Aaaaah, life on a zoo.

So there’s four ostriches and four people. They figure that if they each take a bird, they can bring them all back before any of the birds get to the highway. Tracy, Mike and Nick all bring their animals in pretty quickly, but Lisa has some trouble with her bird. Her approach, lovey-dovey as always, instead makes the ostrich think, “yeah, I can take this bitch,” and it starts pecking her.

Ostriches can be fucking vicious, and Lisa, being blind, can’t dodge. She quickly becomes utterly panicked. Nick charges in and scares the ostrich back into the herd. Lisa’s shaken, but recovers quickly, and wonders what went wrong. Nick answers that sometimes you just have to cut the sweet talk and show them who’s boss. She admits he has a point, which Nick makes sure to milk for all it’s worth until her gratitude turns into exasperation.

Awww, he’s learning how to be a brother!

So point one to the macho method, but Lisa’s back up for the next round. After she is bandaged up, she finds Nick once against wrestling unsuccessfully with Gus. She starts sweet talking and cuddling the little guy, and suddenly Gus opens his mouth for the bottle. After a little experimentation, they realize that when they lean on his trunk, he feels like his mother is above him and he’s ready to eat. Go team gender diversity!

Just as Nick is talking about them having solved their gender related issues, Whit shows up, bringing Jessica and Janelle, the twin girls. Nick is taken aback, as Mike didn’t actually get to the “fyi, we got more kids coming on board” part of the talk. There was a little crisis with some escaped dinosaurs, remember?

Well, this is inconvenient, as Jessica and Janelle are Black, and at first they worry that he’s reacting to that. Of course it’s just that he’s surprised by new people, plus now he’s outnumbered by girls three to one. These two kids, already stressed by their mother’s health crisis and being taken in by strangers, had to also experience a moment of worry that they were going to be stuck with a massive racist, only to learn that he’s just a slight misogynist. What a hilarious misunderstanding!

So… yeah. That ending was awkward as hell. I’d love to go into a whole rant about the problems with introducing someone’s marginalized identity by having an It’s-Not-Bigotry-It’s-Just-A-Misunderstanding Scene (TM), but I really don’t have space for it, so I’ll just acknowledge that it is a problem, and save the why for another time. While I’m acknowledging issues, there’s some cisheteronormativity in both Tracy and Mike’s speeches; as in “of course Nick acts that way, he’s a guy. We can predict the exact ways you two are different based on your genders.” You have to wonder if they would be as supportive of Nick and Lisa’s different personalities if they were both boys, or both girls.

But as far as the episode goes with the moral, their point is awesome. They do have a firm grasp of the heart of inclusion and diversity; different can be good. Different is what makes life interesting and beautiful, and often our differences enable us to help each other. Our talents and strengths can balance each other out, and the benefits of diversity are well worth the work it can sometimes take to get along. AIO and I actually totally agree on this basic principle.

I know all too many liberals who think conservatives don’t get this principle, but I think many of them do, in an abstract sense. I was pretty deeply entrenched in conservative Christian fundamentalism, and I constantly got the message that differences were gifts from God. It wasn’t about a difference of basic principles, but a list of exceptions to that principle; this one doesn’t count as a good difference, nor does this one, nor that, nor that. In my next reviews, I’ll try to not only show how some identities were marginalized, but also try to explain why this happens, and hopefully explore some ideas on how to better address bigotry in our political culture.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I love so many moments, but the scene where Lisa and Nick finally co-operate to help Gus is so fulfilling and heartwarming. And it has a happy baby elephant! It’s tough to compete with that.

Worst Part: Jessica and Janelle’s awkward introduction.

Morality Rating: This is an important idea, well illustrated by the story. A+

Story Rating: Funny, well paced and brings the main idea up in a way that feels natural. A+

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

The Ghost Bride

  • Genre
    • Horror, Ghost Story, Historical Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Li Lan, a beautiful young woman from a family fallen on hard times, is asked if she wants to become a ghost bride; an unusual custom used to placate the restless dead. When she declines, she finds that her undead suitor is persistent, and tied to deeper secrets than she could have imagined. 
  • Characters
    • I really liked Li Lan, as well as the side characters. Their quirks, histories and foibles were well developed. The bad guys had enough tragic pasts and difficult situations to make you feel sorry for them, but were still despicable enough to make you root for their downfall. The good guys had enough flaws to be relatable, but were heroic enough to make you hope for their success. Special shoutout to Amah, who was a delightful mother figure and mentor. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Gothic and creepy, with a good bit of fantasy adventure thrown in. I think this would be a good one for anyone who likes scary material, but wants to spend more time excited or in suspense than disturbed and horrified. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The setting is actually Victorian Malaysia, but focused on the Chinese community within it. The author is Malaysian of Chinese descent, so it’s not some exoticized stereotype, but a breathing world portrayed with the warmth of familiarity. It was a setting that was completely unfamiliar to me, and it was delightful to get to see a bit of it through the eyes of an insider.
    • She adds end notes on the history, culture and folklore that inspired it.  
    • The afterlife and magic system is well developed, unique and fun. It is heavily based on Chinese and Malaysian beliefs and mythology, but there are also elements she invented for herself, and they all blend together beautifully.
    • Lots of great female characters, both heroic and villainous. Bechdel’s Test is easily passed.
  • Content Warnings
    • Possessions and stalking; probably the creepiest thing about Lim Tian Ching, the ghost who haunts Li Lan, is how much of a realistically entitled pervert he is. 
  • Quotes
    • “It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.”
    • “I liked the moon, with its soft silver beams. It was at once elusive and filled with trickery, so that lost objects that had rolled into the crevices of a room were rarely found, and books read in its light seemed to contain all sorts of fanciful stories that were never there the next morning.”

The Frangipani Hotel, by Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel

  • Genre
    • Horror, Suspense, Ghost Stories
  • Plot Summary
    • A collection of ghost stories and monster tales, centered around the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
  • Character Empathy
    • I loved the variety of the viewpoint characters. Some were cynical and detached, some curious and naive, some lonely or depressed, some heartless, some too compassionate for their own good. Depending on whose eyes you are looking for, you might more or less insight into the other characters. However, even with the most jaded and unobservant characters, the author gives you glimpses of the facets they might be missing, all without violating the point of view. It’s fantastic and brilliant. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Creepy, but also oddly charming. I’ve always thought that horror is most effective when paired with something loved or lovable; if you don’t love something, how are you going to get attached, and so why should you be afraid? Here, the love most often comes from the sense of place. You can tell that the author loves Vietnam (her mother was a refugee from the war, and Violet Kupersmith later returned to study there). She draws you into even the dingiest alleys and most polluted landscapes, and makes you long to protect it from the monsters that are about to break out onto it.
    • She’s also an absolute master of suspense. She knows that less is sometimes more, and always keeps you guessing about what she’s going to show you, and what she’ll leave to your imagination.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • A creepy water woman who could probably eat Odysseus’ sirens for breakfast.
    • The first story is dialog only. I’m kind of a sucker for stories that take those kinds of gimmicks and make them work naturally. She definitely pulled it off.
    • A cranky old truck driver’s story about the time he transported a shark… and it’s not even the main ghost story, just beautifully weird set dressing.
    • A sweet old man who happens to spend part of his life as a giant snake. That’s shiny to me, because I like both sweet old men and cool snakes.
  • Content Warnings
    • Creepy bodies, monsters, a pinch of body horror… the usual fare for this genre.
    • There is one story, Skin and Bones, that might be triggering for people with eating disorders. Still read the book, just skip that one.
  • Quotes
    • “Con, if you were listening you would have learned almost everything you need to know about your history. The first rule of the country we come from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.
    • “Thuy didn’t mind that she and her grandmother couldn’t speak to each other. In fact, she rather liked it, and found that their mutual lack of language skills freed them from the banalities of conversation.”
    • “They had discovered that excitement is really just smog and noise and never seeing the stars, and trash piled up in the streets. They would ride with their heads out the window, their faces softening as the city fell away and the world turned flat and emerald-colored again; they were waiting for the moment when we crossed into their province, when they would smack the dashboard and cry out, “Here! Here!”
    • “Sometimes kids will sit on the lower branches and try to fish, but everyone knows that there’s nothing to catch in Hoan Kiem but empty Coca-Cola cans and used heroin needles. Legend says that centuries ago, a giant turtle lived at the bottom of the lake, and it once gave a magic sword to a general to help him defeat the Chinese invaders. I’m supposed to tell the story to all the tourists who stay at the Frangi.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: An Act of Nobility

Now, before I get to AIO’s coverage of social and political issues, I’m going into the second meta-moralizing episode. Last time, I talked about how their standard format can lead to some spectacularly bland storytelling, and rather confusing messages, because they are often unwilling to break the mold when the story demands it. This time, I’m going to talk about a dissonance between their confidence and their understanding.

The episode opens with Isaac moping at Whit’s End about surprise homework. Seems that, in history class, his teacher asked if anybody knew what nobility meant, and Isaac said it was kings and dukes and lords and so on. Whit immediately thinks he knows the problem.

“Let me guess. She said there was a lot more to nobility than rank and title.”

No, Whit, it’s a fucking history class, not an ethics or philosophy class. The word may have multiple meanings but in this context she is clearly looking for a description of the feudal system… oh wait. That’s exactly what she said?

Well, that’s a plot twist.

She then made Isaac write a report on the true meaning of nobility, even though he apparently still doesn’t have a clue what she meant. Okay then.

So Whit offers to- No, hang on. I’m still not over this. You mean to tell me that she brought up the topic of nobility, in a history class, told the first kid who answered that he was wrong, and then just moved on? What did she bring nobility up for if it wasn’t going to be integral to the lesson? And what the hell was with the random punishment homework?

Maybe she actually asked the class for a definition of mobility, and when Isaac piped up she thought, “oh, a derailing smartass, I’ll show him,” then continued her lesson on early capitalism and the opportunities brought by re-emergence of the merchant middle class in medieval Europe.

Anyway, Whit offers to tell a story to help Isaac understand the true meaning of nobility. He has one stipulation though; Isaac can’t use the story in his report. You’d think this is because plagiarism is a bad habit to start this young, but you’d only think that because you haven’t heard other AIO episodes. Whit does this all the time. He tells stories to kids who can’t think of ideas for their biography paper or history report, and at the end they’re all, “gee whiz, Mr. Whitaker, what a great story! I’ll sit down and write up those things you said right now!” Apparently teachers in Odyssey accept, “the nice old man from the ice cream shop told me” as a cited reference. Which leaves Whit’s refusal to let Isaac use the story in his paper as mysteerrriiiooouuussss.

Whit’s story centers around an American named James Armer, who is vacationing in the quaint little Slavic nation of Muldavia. He’s out for a walk one day when he sees a plane in trouble. When it crashes in a nearby field, he runs out to help, but a pair of men appear and yell at him to get away. As soon as they set eyes on him, they are stunned, and he barks at them to help the pilot. The three of them get the pilot out and into James’ cabin, and the reason for their reaction becomes plain. James and the pilot look identical; what’s more the pilot is none other than Crown Prince Roderick of Muldavia.

Now’s as good a time as any to reveal that Whit is basically retelling The Prisoner of Zenda.

The two men are General Farnam and Dr. Monroe, two trusted advisers (with weirdly non-Slavic names) to the royal family, and the prince ran off to enjoy a bit of freedom before the coronation. They had been following him on foot because they were concerned… They mention that luckily his plane isn’t very fast, so this was possible, but it still bothered me. I mean, they weren’t just keeping it in sight. They were on it, immediately, the moment it crashed. I did a little research, and the slowest planes are still in the 30-45 mph range. Slower than that and they physically can’t stay airborne. Plus, this one is the private toy of a crown prince. I can buy that with a little country he can’t afford the biggest, fastest one in existence, but he’s got to have one at least a notch above the slowest in the world. Old timey-ness isn’t an excuse either. Even the Wright brother’s second flight went 37 mph, and we got to 100 mph planes within the first decade of manned aircraft… I’m spending way too much time on this. Sorry guys.

So, it turns out the crash was no accident. Dr. Monroe recovers a wine bottle from the wreckage, which he says was drugged. He and General Farnam pour over the label that says Von Warburg sellers, while James, to his credit, freaks out over the fact that this motherfucker was drinking and flying at the same time!

They’re all, “yes, yes, we’re very concerned, he’s so irresponsible, but still. The real issue is that he’s rightful heir to the throne, while Baron Von Warburg is an illegitimate cousin, so that’s where our moral priorities lie.” Furthermore, Prince Roderick refuses to listen to his adviser’s info on how corrupt and evil Von Warburg is. If Roderick doesn’t make it to the coronation, and thanks to his drugged state he won’t, he forfeits the crown and the evil cousin can take over.

James, having now been convinced of the rightfulness of this hereditary monarchy, offers to dress up as Roderick for the coronation and switch back once Roderick recovers.

So the next day he gets crowned while Baron Von Warburg bemoans the failure of his evil plan, in an extra slimy voice to prove that he’s a villain. The trio head back to the cabin, where the Prince has woken up and is totally incapable of grasping that this scheme was devised to help him. He insists that clearly James the imposter is out to take his throne permanently, with the two advisers’ aide… or possibly just fooling them… he’s fuzzy on the details. This particular part isn’t bad writing. They are intentionally establishing Prince Roderick as entitled and too dumb to come up with a decent conspiracy plot to justify his own knee-jerk suspicions. So, he’s not only a thrill-seeking alcoholic but also utterly devoid of common sense. Are we sure we don’t want Von Warburg to take over? He isn’t a swell guy either, but his only definite crime is the attempted assassination, I could see that being the act of a morally grey character trying to avert a greater catastrophe. Hardly unprecedented; Catherine the Great’s husband died of a mysterious and convenient illness shortly after she got sneaky-coronated, and she was one of Russia’s less sucky rulers.

And speaking of Von Warburg, he was suspicious of the failure of his brilliant attempt and followed the trio after the ceremony. He and his henchmen burst in with a gun, announce that A. yes they are totally evil, and were from the beginning B. they figure they will just shoot everybody and stage it like they killed each other off. And as the only armed people in the room, they can do this quite easily, right now. Too easily for the plot, so instead Von Warburg tells his henchman to go tie them up first. Now Von Warburg can’t shoot into the crowd without risking hitting his own man, and they’re both already outnumbered two to one, so the heroes have the advantage back. James plays the hero by tackling the henchmen, there’s a scuffle, and unsurprisingly the villains do not come out well.

A few days after everything goes down, Roderick and James are taking a walk and having a heart to heart. Roderick apologizes for being a dick… well, he’s still a clueless reckless irresponsible dolt, but he owns it when he is proven wrong, so he’s at least one qualification better than the dude pretending to run my country.

Obviously James can’t have any special recognition, as that will ruin the whole deception, but Roderick insists on giving him something. James says he lost his watch on the way over, and Roderick gives him a lovely pocket watch that plays a tune when you open it. They part ways, after some reflections about how interesting it is that James acted more kingly than the guy who was technically king.

Whit triumphantly announces that he has now illustrated what true nobility is all about. So, I guess, being brave and doing things for the good of others and stuff. Not wrong, but a little vague. Really what’s going on here is that we went on expecting good behavior from nobles for so many generations, cause clearly God would only have rewarded them with such power and status if they were good, and after a while the world “nobility” came to mean both “not a peasant” and “generally being a swell kind of person.” Whit could have saved himself a lot of time.

Isaac walks off, with a parting line about how it’s too bad that stories like that don’t ever happen in real life, then another kid asks Whit what time it is. Whit opens up a pocket watch that plays the same music as the one Roderick gives to James. So clearly the real reason Whit didn’t want Isaac to tell it is because it’s a super secret real adventure he had, and if it ever gets out, say in a shitty homework assignment from one kid, then the political stability of the kingdom of Muldavia would be destroyed!

Wait, it’s still a hereditary monarchy? Did the USSR just go, “comrades, this place is too tiny for even us to give a shit about,” or what?

In my regular sections, I hold AIO to a high standard. I don’t just criticize them for bad messages and messages poorly conveyed. I point out what they never bring up, and I do that because AIO markets itself as such a great and comprehensive moral authority. I thought it was important to review an episode that illustrates this. Normally this emphasis comes from Chris’s intros and outros, but as I said last time, they are pretty bland and I don’t want to go into them every time. But they are there. They do give an impressionable kid the sense that these are stories you should be paying attention to, because they know everything. To be honest, little kid me loved this episode because it had castles and fights in it, but I didn’t really get the point about nobility. But I assumed they knew what they were talking about, because this is Adventures in Odyssey! They are so confident about how much they know all the things!

Yet when you break it down, we don’t even get a clear idea of what the moral sense of nobility is. On the one hand, we clearly have James being brave and self-sacrificing, but in ways that the average person will never get a chance to be. So we have to see these actions as a sort of synecdoche. He’s using a small example of moral action as a stand in for generally holding oneself to a high standard and being willing to do what’s right at a high personal cost. Also, is the point that we shouldn’t worry about NOT being royalty, since we can already be noble in our behavior? Or that hierarchy is meaningless without right behavior to back it up? Either way, it’s  not a very meaningful point to their audience of modern American children. We told the nobility to stuff it back in 1776.

There’s nothing wrong with putting out a meh episode every now and then. There is something wrong with building yourself up as the moral authority when some days you can’t even get your own message straight.

Final Ratings

Best Bit: The fight scene was pretty exciting to me when I was a kid. The sheer stupidity of the villains’ action brings it down a few notches, but the narration is still well done. Plus, there’s not a lot of competition, so by process of elimination… yeah.

Worst Bit: Oh god. Do I pick the watch thing? The history teacher? The bit where they followed a plane on foot? It’s a hard call, but since the history homework frame device sets up so many problems in the rest of the story, I have to go with that. Close call though.

Story Rating: All they did was rip off The Prisoner of Zenda, and they weren’t even that creative about it. Hell, even their choice of which book to rip off is uncreative. Everybody has done a Prisoner of Zenda. Doctor Who’s version had androids. D

Moral Rating: Yes yes, it’s very good to be a good person, as opposed to a not-good one. C